UML Can Spark Economic Boom

06/01/2008
By From the Lowell Sun

By John Edward

Let's face it. Whether we like it or not, Massachusetts is in the business of picking winners and losers. Will the next big thing be high-tech, biotech, or nanotech? Will the jobs of tomorrow come from casino gambling, movie making, or something else?

A conventional approach to economic development is for a region to play to its strengths. Promote sectors in which the local economy specializes. Concentrate on industries that sell product beyond the region, bring in money, and create jobs.

I am offering a contrary view. I propose we promote an industry in which Middlesex County falls far behind the rest of the nation. The industry I believe could be a winner, could be a specialization, is public higher education.

Middlesex County is very strong in private colleges and universities, thanks primarily to a couple of very expensive schools in Cambridge. Employment data shows we are way behind in providing public higher education. However, with UMass Lowell we have a solid foundation to build on.

UMass Lowell is very competitive among New England public universities when comparing out-of-state tuition rates. However, it falls far short when it comes to attracting students to come study here.

I talked to UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan. He took the job with an eye toward expanding the university's role as "the heart of the economic engine that drives this region." Specifically, he is referring to the school's combined role of stimulating economic activity through technology development and educating the workforce needed to match the jobs that are created.
 
In our discussion, Meehan agreed that expanding UMass Lowell's ability to generate revenue, and on-campus employment, is consistent with his vision. In fact, he stated that he made some of his hiring and promotion decisions with this goal in mind.

To attract students from outside the region, the critical need is housing. The chancellor wants to increase the resident student population from 25 percent to 50 percent by adding 2,000 dorm beds.

UMass Lowell has elected a developer for a 400-bed dormitory building. It is important that the university work with the City of Lowell to manage growth properly. Where students say they want housing, and where the city would like to see housing developed, will not always be compatible.

Another challenge is to attract students from New England, from the United States, and from the rest of the world. The chancellor cited amenities that offer an appealing campus environment -- the recreation center, LeLacheur Park and the Tsongas Arena.

I'm old school. I would like to think colleges attract good students by offering a good education. The chancellor would not disagree.

The engineering and science programs are important given the objective of technology development. Meehan does not want to put all his eggs in one basket. He cited a number of other programs, including criminal justice, music, and a new communications program that are selling points.

A good product at a good price is not always enough. With all the options available to students, marketing is very important.

The University of Massachusetts advertises on local radio, on regional television, and in national print media. The results are promising. Applications and commitments for next academic year are up significantly.

However, the university system has the resources to do more outside the region. The television ads ("you learn something new every day") that run frequently here could be effective outside the region. The Internet is a powerful low-cost tool for getting the message out to prospective students. There should be more cross-campus coordination of recruiting and admissions.

UMass Amherst has a very successful Commonwealth College honors program. It offers an affordable alternative that attracts students who might normally choose Ivy League schools. UMass Lowell has established an "Honors House" on campus. The university should expand the honors program as both an enriched academic experience and as a marketing tool.

The university can expand its reach via UMass on-line. Not everyone will want to come to the campus. Not every student needs a traditional classroom setting. We can still take their tuition money, and create more campus jobs.

Marketing is clearly on the chancellor's mind. A recent Sun article described Meehan as "beefing up the PR office" and cited grumbling that he is "using the Office of Public Affairs to bolster his profile." In our discussion, the chancellor countered that they are spending less on public relations this year than last, but that he does want to expand marketing programs. As long as they spend money to attract students, faculty, staff, and research dollars then it should be a good investment.

The state has some investment decisions to make. The University of Massachusetts is dependent on the Commonwealth's resources.

UMass Lowell receives 37 percent of its operating budget from state appropriations. Drafts of the fiscal year 2009 state budget increase the university system allocation by 5 percent to almost $500 million.

UMass Lowell is dependent on the state for the capital budget necessary to fund the campus expansion that Meehan envisions. Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed a $2 billion bond bill for capital expenditures.

It may seem like a lot of money, and it is, but Massachusetts has a lot of catching up to do. State Rep. Kevin Murphy said the university system has been devastated by funding cuts. A state Senate Task Force on Public Higher Education co-chaired by Sen. Steven Panagiotakos reported that our investment in public higher education decreased by 33 percent between 2001 and 2004!

This helps explain why Massachusetts ranks near the bottom on spending for higher education. The Senate Task Force reported that we ranked 47th on per-capita spending and 49th when measuring spending relative to state income. We spend only two-thirds of the national average. It is time we reinvest, and the governor is trying to push us in that direction.

In addition to bringing in money and creating jobs, there is another advantage to recruiting students from outside the state. The chancellor is convinced, as am I, of the value of diversity. Having students and faculty from a variety of backgrounds can enrich the learning experience for all.

On the other hand, it is critically important that initiatives to expand enrollment do not detract from the university's core mission -- to educate students from the region. There is no reason why it has to. Many of the initiatives I have talked about would make UMass Lowell a better place for in-state students.

In-state tuition rates were much more affordable 10 years ago. I applaud the chancellor's effort to build up the endowment fund for student scholarships. The university system, and the state, must keep the public in public higher education.

The levels of enrollment and employment at UMass Lowell were much higher 20 years ago. In a few years, the campus could return to those levels. It will require capital improvements. It will also require more efficient utilization of existing resources. Classrooms on campus are not utilized to capacity. Many remain empty during certain times of the day.

Promoting the higher-education industry can be an engine for creating jobs on campus. They are good jobs that leverage our skilled workforce. It is not just faculty positions. UMass Lowell employs significant numbers of administrative and facilities staff. The university should ensure that these jobs continue to offer fair wages and a supportive work environment.

A few weeks ago, John Schneider and Dana Ansel from MassINC offered an opinion column discussing "Massachusetts' shifting economy." They opposed "targeted economic incentives for specific industry sectors" -- picking winners and losers. They strongly supported "expanding the number of export-based jobs" in industries that sell outside the region.

Public higher education is not one of those industries, but perhaps it could be. Targeting this industry can only be a winner. We will lose if we do not expand our capacity to offer a competitive public higher education system, and to produce a competitive workforce.

John Edward earned his master's degree at UMass Lowell and is an adjunct professor of economics at Bentley College. He lives in Chelmsford.